I saw the honour guard assume their posts, I hard the skirl of the pipes, I watched the parade of veterans and soldiers approach along the Esplanade. I stood in the -20C cold with my daughter at the cenotaph in Medicine Hat; I closed my eyes and in the silence I was transported back …
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
As I write this we are in France, driving the highways and countryside of Normandy towards Courseulles sur Mer on the northern coast, to the beach where Canadian soldiers landed on D-Day, June 6, 1944. As we pass through small French towns with their old stone houses and store fronts, their doors opening directly onto the cobbled streets, I can’t help but imagine enemy tanks barreling along these narrow streets, the noise echoing through the corridors of the village, the marching step of the soldiers, weapons held ready to fire.
I am thinking about my father and all the men like him and their willingness to serve. Uncle Kenneth had just turned 24 the very day he died trying to pilot his plane back to safety.
I am thinking about the heavy bombing raids of the Blitz and the reminiscences of my mother-in-law, a young woman of 20 who took her gas mask to work each day and lived behind black-out curtains, who spent long nights in the bomb shelter behind her home when sirens screamed their warning again, and again.
Today Juno beach is a deserted stretch of sand; the stiff breeze is rolling waves onto the shore; clouds are building ominously off to the west as I stand here looking out to sea. But what is playing in my head is far, far different.
I hear chaos, and sense fear; landing boats, tanks, hundreds upon hundreds of scrambling men , mortars and machine gun fire, shouted orders and screams of the injured. And I blink back the tears.
Canada’s museum sitting just back from the shore honours the men and tells their stories. One exhibit scrolls the names of over 45,000 Canadians who gave their lives during the Second World War, slowly, across the ceiling. Looking up, as if to the sky I see names, so many names, in alphabetical order, one after another, … Cain, Cairns, Calder, Caldwell … some surnames repeated several times and I wonder, “Were they brothers? Or cousins?” … they keep coming. Moving to the next exhibit I listen to tapes, readings, that reflected that time. After three or four minutes, I turn again to the ceiling and the names … still scrolling through all the Caldwell sons who were there that day. It would take over 13 hours to see the complete scroll from A to Z.
We are in the countryside heading to the Canadian military cemetery, through open fields and a small wood. As I pass through the gates and under the arching limbs of the maple trees, I see the rows of gravestones in a beautifully manicured cemetery honouring over two thousand Canadians.
As I walk slowly along the rows I see the same dates over and over engraved on the headstones – June 6, 1944, June 7, 1944, June 11, 1944, again and again. So many are still teenagers, young men of 18 and 19 years of age. As I walk by I repeat their names, acknowledging each and the sacrifice made. At the graves of each unnamed soldier I feel even greater sadness, for the families who didn’t know where their brother / father / son was buried.
As I leave the cemetery and pass again under the maple trees, the ominous clouds from the west are upon us, the skies open up and the rain falls.
I am late with this post; I’ve been away and I apologize but it is important.
To those who may read this who were once our enemy, I don’t believe it is right that the sins of the fathers should fall upon the sons and daughters now two generations removed. It is about the men and women who rise to fight when the call goes out, when freedoms are curtailed. It is about my father, and my uncles and so many more … on both sides … when evil is at the helm.